Spiritual teaching should always be received with caution and ambivalence by teachers and students alike. When we attempt to convey spiritual truth we are tending towards transcendent meaning. Transcendence, by definition, is above or beyond the separative, cognitive world of words and concepts. Mental cognition imposes structure and form which clarify most areas of knowledge. But spirituality and transcendence are always compromised by description and definition.
Analogies may be found in true art and nature. We might try to convey the ecstatic qualities of great music or a panoramic vista. But words, at best, will lead only to a pale imitation of what they attempt to describe. As Krishnamurti pointed out: "The description is never the described."
You have to experience and be affected by art or nature to truly commune with them. You may have to lose yourself and become transported by them by responding with abandon and surrender, which resembles the effects of transcendence on the soul and spirit.
It is a fact that the stronger the experience, the less the individual personality is present. The more real the transcendent, imminent noumenon, the less real we are ourselves. This is true of art and nature, as well as of spirituality and transcendence.
Therefore all teaching about the spiritual realms is symbolic, analogous or metaphorical. We cannot say what it is when we are speaking of the otherworldly, of a stratum of ‘experience’ beyond fear and desire; we can only say what it is like. The means we use are only useful insofar as they point beyond themselves to something entirely and completely ‘other’.
Spiritual teachings fall into one of the following categories:
Partial, but nonetheless earthbound, ‘spiritual’ truths
True spiritual teaching
The first, quasi-spiritual teachings, are usually descriptions of exalted human experience in which all our senses are heightened so that experience is vivid, rare and acute. These unusual conditions lead the teacher or the student to the conclusion that their experience is spiritual, when in fact it is merely a fully human experience. As we engage physically, emotionally, mentally and energetically with developed inner powers we can easily mistake the fully human for the spiritual.
The second, spiritual methods, are the means to the truth, rather than the truth itself. This may appear obvious, but the fervor with which students become attached to method is like worshipping the road and forgetting the destination.
The third - partial, but nonetheless earthbound, ‘spiritual’ truths - arises out of the fallacy of mistaking a stop along the way for the destination itself. While there is nothing at all wrong with enjoying the journey, or seeking refuge for renewal and refreshment, we should never think we have arrived before we get to our destination.
The fourth, fake teachings, are, at worst, the power play and manipulations of people who try to exert outward power over gullible students or followers and, at best, an expression of self-delusion. Before beginning to teach, we should be clear that our inner knowing and the impersonal truth have aligned seamlessly inside us.
The last, true spiritual teaching, is of course what it’s all about: conveying the deep truths of the human condition to draw the inner and outer worlds together and fulfill a human lifetime. Here the question of telling people what to do or imparting a structured form of teaching must be carefully considered by teachers, and no less carefully received by students alike.
Often spiritual teaching is non-directive, which can be frustrating for the student who is looking for answers. I remember during satsang with a Zen roshi asking what the point of life really was, because I couldn’t see the point in anything. He answered, "I know what the point is for me. You must find out what the point is for you." And that was that!
Then there is the story Robert Johnson tells about his first meeting with C G Jung. Jung sits him down and, having never even met Johnson, tells him exactly what he should do with the entire rest of his life based on a single dream interpretation. This would sound patently like amazing arrogance if it hadn’t all turned out to be exactly what Johnson did and through doing so he found his life fulfilled.
Ultimately it may be that more is conveyed in silence than in verbal teaching. When we remain quiet and allow the subtle energies to move us, over time a great intimacy arises and a profound receptivity. Our sensitivity to life increases and we experience more fully and more authentically than ever before. The world becomes alive and the veils that usually separate people from us are peeled back.
Ramana Maharshi is the preeminent example of this. He taught through silence. He asked, "Which is the better, to preach loudly without effect or to sit silently sending out inner force?" And his answer was that the true spiritual teacher is "the bestower of silence who reveals the light of Self-knowledge… Silent initiation changes the hearts of all."